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Motivation Matters

"If a man look sharply and attentively, he shall see Fortune, for, though she be blind, yet she is not invisible." Franics Bacon

A New Story From Jim: Workshop Gone Awry!

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The other day, I was in a room full of teachers who, in a fit of poor judgment, had asked me to do a workshop on learning fractions.  I assigned a problem on fraction division and was walking around the room listening to teachers’ conversations as they made sense of the problem.  I just chanced to hear one teacher mutter, “God I hate this.”

Now, those of you who know me understand that I cannot pass up an opportunity to confront issues of motivation whenever they come up.  “Hold on!” I stopped the conversation, “Why do you hate division by fractions so much? Where did this come from?”   

 Sheepishly, the teacher reflected on the years of frustration she had had in her mathematical experiences, and how she just inverted and multiplied to get the correct answer.  She was frustrated that I was forcing her to try the problems without this familiar (and useful, to be truthful) procedure, and projected that this experience was similar to all those demoralizing experiences she had growing up.

 This was a shocker.  My intent was not to frustrate the teachers (too much…). My intent was to get them to work through the problems from the perspective of a 5th grader, without their adult knowledge of fractions to support them.  Well, I got what I had asked for.  This teacher, upon feeling frustrated, began to develop what researchers call “situational interest.” But, like her 5th graders, her situational interest was negative instead of positive.  This struck home to me, that whenever a person is engaged in some difficult mathematical task, they learn both the content—how to divide by fractions and how to think about models that use iterative units to compare one fraction to another—and the motivation—in this case that division by mathematics was frustrating and non-interesting.   

 I brought this up and used it as an opportunity to reflect on the learning of my teachers’ students.  How do students react when presented with challenging tasks?  Do they relish the challenge?  Do they feel frustrated and upset?  Why would two children from the same classroom react in different ways to ostensibly the same task?  We used the fraction division task the teachers were engaging in as an example.  Some teachers said that they enjoyed trying new ways to solve the problem and that doing so gave them new insight into the mathematics and especially into children’s mathematics.  Some, like my frustrated teacher, really disliked the task and felt it did them no good.  And some disliked the task but felt that it was important to engage in it so that they would be better prepared for their students’ reaction to both content and motive.

 Our conversation brought up three key motivational patterns that each of us sees every day.  Some students are right in line with our instruction, learning and liking it—feeling successful, relishing the challenge, and persevering through the frustration.  These students appear Intrinsically Motivated, and these positive behaviors show it.  Some students just don’t like the task. For whatever reason, they don’t see it as an interest, and don’t see the utility of it. These students need some social motivation or even some reward or contingency to help them engage and even have the possibility of gaining interest in the task. They appear to be Extrinsically Motivated.  The third group of students plug along, not too excited, but on board motivationally because they see the mathematics as being Useful to them.  These students appear to have learning goals and positive self-regulation strategies that help them stay engaged even when they personally don’t like the activity.

 In reality, all classrooms exhibit these three patterns (even professional development workshops that I run).  To be honest, each of us exhibits these patterns for different activities in our lives.  A key challenge for us as teachers is to recognize that each pattern has its own adaptive advantages to the children (or adults…) and that different pedagogical approaches will help students engage and succeed.

 Like we say in our book, there are no quick fixes.  Motivating students requires knowing about the sources of students’ likes and dislikes, goals and aspirations, and their predilections.  Armed with this knowledge, a teacher can tailor their instruction to the needs of each of her/his students a little bit better each day.

 Back to our story.  Because we stopped and discussed my teacher's frustration in a matter of fact way, with no blame assigned to her, collectively we helped the teacher overcome her frustration and re-define her motivation to include the usefulness of the task for reaching her students who were having difficulty understanding how one can divide a smaller number by a larger number and how to expand their operation sense to include fractions in this scheme.  She still didn't much like the task, but the overall activity she reclassified as useful for her own goals as a professional.

 Best wishes in YOUR struggles.  More stories of our struggles are on the way!



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